Posted On: November 1, 2016
By Turner Walston
They're putting it together. Finally, they're putting it together. The much-maligned Tar Heel defense (particularly when viewed next to the eye-popping numbers of the Carolina offense) is finally starting to string together a series of winning performances. With the offense not mustering a score in the second half, the defense won the game at Miami. And two weeks ago, the Virginia Cavaliers managed just 253 yards of total offense and 14 points in a three-touchdown Tar Heel win.
"Each and every week, we were able to find some improvement defensively, whether it was within a unit or in one aspect or not, we were able to find some of that and you were able to see them growing," Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora said at his Monday press conference. "I think they're playing with some confidence, and their confidence has grown over the last couple of weeks, and they're just playing much better football."
That confidence is showing up on third down, when the defense gives themselves a chance to get off the field. Virginia converted just three times on 19 third-down conversion attempts. The week prior, Miami was just four of 15. The Tar Heels stood strong on first and second downs, setting up long odds for their opponents on third downs. "Winning first and second down, getting negative plays," said senior cornerback Des Lawrence of his team's third-down successes. "And that's going to be big in this game."
Ah yes, this game. This game being the Tar Heels' annual matchup with Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, the Coastal Division rivals who visit Kenan Stadium on Saturday. Johnson's flex-bone offense is unique in college football; teams don't often see it. But the teams that do have to prepare differently than they would for any other opponent. The Yellow Jackets heavily employ the triple option, making defenses prepare for a fullback dive, a quarterback keep or a pitch to a wing-back on any given play. Their offensive linemen and receivers make holes in the defense by cut blocking, taking out the legs of defenders at the line of scrimmage. It's not fun to defend against, because it's often unlike any offense teams will see for the rest of the year. And so the week (or weeks) of preparation that go into facing Georgia Tech are of paramount importance.
So, back to Des. Why is winning first and second down so important against Georgia Tech? "Because if they're in 3rd and 3s, and 3rd and 4s, even 3rd and 5s, then they're in a good spot and they're where they want to be, because they can still go for it on fourth down," Lawrence said. So we have to win on first and second down and that's what we did the last two games."
One of the particularly encouraging signs on the Tar Heel defense of late has been the development and increased production of young players. Ten of the 17 Tar Heels with double-digit tackles on the season are freshmen are sophomores. First-year starter and redshirt sophomore Cole Holcomb is a former walk-on now on scholarship and is second on the team with 69 stops. The reliability of young players gives the Tar Heels depth, and the ability to be confident in the fresh legs they can put on the field. And when a player like junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones has confidence in the player next to him, he can play with confidence himself.
"We've got some ballers," Jones said. "We've got some guys that are starting to come into their own. Aaron Crawford, Marlon [Dunlap], everybody else, Jalen (Dalton) and Jeremiah (Clarke), they're coming into their own. Before I would kind of hesitate coming out of the game if I got nicked up or I was tired, but now I'll run off just as quick, because I know they can handle it and our defense won't suffer because i'm not out there."
The young Tar Heels' discipline will be tested this weekend. Players want to make plays, but taking chances against the Jackets can get you burned. "It's a lot of attention to detail, because you don't see this offense a lot throughout the year; it's almost foreign to you," Lawrence said, "so you have to revamp your thinking of how you're going to attack this team. It's switching gears and being able to be mentally focused on what you have to do."
And particularly while facing Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, the Tar Heel secondary will have to be wary of creeping forward to help against the run. Johnson's quarterbacks have traditionally not thrown a lot (for example, in 2013, the Jackets were 120th in the nation in passing offense), but with Thomas, Georgia Tech has a capable runner and thrower. Against Duke last week, he threw for 264 yards and two scores and rushed for 195 and another pair. "He's probably one of the better quarterbacks that they have had that can actually throw it to perfect their offense," Lawrence said, "So we know that he has a good enough arm to make the plays for their offense."
That means the Tar Heel front seven will have to hold their own, as the secondary won't be able to help in the run game until they're sure that the Jackets are running, lest they allow an explosive play. So up front, "It's just a matter of being a team player at the time because in those situations, you can be greedy and try to make a play, and then you don't make a play and the play goes for 80 yards," Jones said. "It's just a matter of doing your job and not being so highlight-hungry."
Discipline will be key. Discipline and youth don't often go together, but the maturing Tar Heel defense has grown by leaps and bounds by trusting their coaches and teammates, trusting themselves and sticking to assignments. They'll need to stick to what's been working and stay disciplined in their assignments. The Jackets will run the ball often, chewing up the clock and limiting possession. The defense has to get off the field and put the ball in Mitch Trubisky's hands to get a win on Saturday.
Last year, Carolina rallied from a 21-point deficit, a turning point in the 2015 season and perhaps the program itself. This year, the Tar Heels need to keep winning games to give themselves another shot at an ACC Championship. It starts with discipline.